James Mulvany

An all-in-one radio platform for today's broadcaster

What is your background?

I was quite a geeky, introverted kid and definitely not the most outgoing kid in the world. It was good for me going to university because that gave me a bit of a social life and got me out there in the real world. That was really useful from a personal perspective but also from a business perspective as well. There is only so much you can achieve, when you’re sat behind your computer.

I’ve never had a job, I started very young about 16 and was interested in radio and being a presenter. I was also into making websites and was teaching myself that. I decided not to pursue a career in radio but in the process of doing a bit of work experience in radio I learnt how to setup online radio and set up a stream to the internet.

At the time there were a few companies offering this service and it seemed like a way to make a few quid. So in 2004 I set up a website called Wavestreaming. I didn’t really know what I was doing so I got the help of a guy in Australia who helped me set up the servers and stuff.

I went to university and had a nice income on the side, I think that first year we turned over about £18,000. I did Interactive Multimedia at Uni and spent a lot of that time working on the business. At this time we were still selling streaming services to radio stations. I graduated Uni and hired some staff and managed to grow the business to the point where we got a very big deal with AOL, this was about 2011.

One of the core bits of software used by our platform was owned by AOL, it was called Shoutcast and they bought it when they bought Winamp in the early noughties. It was a very small part of their business though and they didn’t really have the expertise or resources in house to develop it any further so they approached me and said can we work with you. Their business was the data, the list of stations.

Overnight we went from getting 5-10 customers a week to getting about 140 a week. We found the customers we were getting weren’t our typical customer, radio stations, they were consumers who wanted to setup online stations. However, the deal with AOL lasted two years and as quick as it came around, it went away. They sold that part of the business to someone else.

After that deal ended we found we weren’t selling to radio stations anymore, we were selling to consumers. Our customer had changed from a tech guy in a radio station to a consumer with very little technical knowledge. We realised we wanted to start again and design the product from the ground up with a focus on making it as easy to use as possible, more akin to setting up a Facebook account than setting up a server so that anyone could do it.

Is there a lot of competition in this space?

There are two or three companies out there who are doing a similar thing, I like to think we are leading the way and companies tend to copy us. We have had instances where companies have copied our adwords word for word and bid on the same keywords. Also the product user interface, companies have tried to copy that, not always doing a particularly good job. We’re a team of 12 and I think there are others out there who don’t necessarily have a big development team, they might be one man bands and so I think we are leading the way. We listen to our users and we’re rolling out fixes and features month on month.

We’re really trying to innovate in this space and build a product that is valuable to the industry.

What were the problems you encountered?

Any SaaS company that grows really quickly has scaling problems and when we launched we weren’t on a cloud based infrastructure. So we had scaling issues and have since moved to AWS to solve a lot of those problems. We hired a cloud consultancy firm who helped us move the core of the product on to Amazon. The concept of DevOps was pretty new to us because we had previously just had managed servers. The speed with which it grew took us by surprise, even though we were expecting quite a lot of users and we did have a bit of downtime but we learned from it, fixed it and moved on.

Why did you grow so quickly?

We knew the market very well, we had mailing lists to work on for instance and we just knew what people wanted. Also, it was the first time that people in this space could have something so fancy. Most of the software available for this was very clunky, desktop based and the look and feel was pretty dated around Windows 2001.

We spent a lot of time on UX and design, so it was a very intentional aim to differentiate ourselves by the quality of the user interface, the design and the user experience.

After losing the previous deal, we kind of knew we needed to go back to the drawing board, start from blank canvas, and work out exactly what we want, and what we want to deliver to customers. Based on all the feedback we’ve had from Shoutcast and AOL and the customers… well, it felt like firefighting, but at the end of the day, the core part of the system wasn’t very user friendly. It wasn’t easy to use, and I think there was only so much we could do to make it better without actually reinventing the core of it. So that’s what we wanted to do with radio.co. We wanted to build something that was functional and simple, and that anyone could understand.

So, in that 18 months time that it took to build radio.co, how did you survive as a business?

Yeah, Wavestream was still alive, we had customers, and we were aware that we were suddenly not getting lots of new customers, and of course, you have so much churn, so I think, for me, in my head, I was thinking, ‘Shit, what’s gonna happen? I’ve got all these staff, and everything’s just going to come crashing down’ and really, what happened wasn’t that bad, it was just that your revenue very slowly starts to decline. But it was a case of, you know, that’s one of these things as an entrepreneur: you have good years, and you have bad years. You have deals that come and go, and one minute you could be on top of the world. Next minute, everything, for whatever reason, gets pulled from under your feet.

So you have to just brush yourself off, pick yourself up, and think, ‘Right, what can I do to make sure that we move, not only just to get back to the level we were at, but also how can we move into the future?’ And of course, in a sense, you look back at it now, and you think maybe it was a good thing. It was sort of a blessing in disguise. Without that, you could become complacent on a certain deal or whatever… a customer, a big deal or whatever it might be in a different business. And, you know, you’re kind of trundling along, and perhaps looking back, we weren’t necessarily innovating as much as we could have done, and the product we’ve got now, I’m more proud of than anything we ever had before. And also, it’s good for business, because we’ve grown significantly more than the point we were at, and at our highest point with the previous incarnation of the business. We’ve exceeded that already.

Was 18 months the hard launch date? Did you know in your head, ‘I can see where the graph is going and if we don’t launch by this date then, we’ve had it’?

I wanted to build it… initially, I thought we could do it in, like, 6 months. And then, of course, it gets to a year, and then when it got to 18 months, it got to a point where we were really just like, ‘Right, we need to get this live.’ With maybe 2 months notice and we were like, ‘This needs to go live, doesn’t matter what’ And again, with radio.co, part of the system was actually built by a guy who then went off and worked for Google. He was with me for some time before when he was at university, then graduated, and he wanted to go and work for Google. And he’d been great to us, you know, so I wasn’t gonna stop him. But it was just kind of annoying, the timing. And of course, a lot of the code he’d written, the other parts of the development team didn’t really understand, so quickly after launch we then found ourselves sort of rewriting bits of code, and replacing bits of the system with open-source software. So, you know, again, it’s a mad scramble, what goes on behind the scenes.

So, you were rewriting bits of the code base while having that enormous growth that you talked about as well. Sounds like a nightmare!

It was a nightmare. But it got to a point where, like, as I say, we’d been building it for a year and a half, and we had to launch because we could have spent another year and a half working on it, you know what I mean? I think some people are perfectionists. I like to get things right, and I like to offer a good quality service. Don’t get me wrong, that’s 100% what we’re about. I’m aware this might sound bad on us, but at the same time, as an entrepreneur, it was like, we just had to get this live. And it was ready, we’d done extensive testing and everything, I just think the scaling thing is what probably hit us the hardest because it was working—

Done is better than perfect. That’s true, isn’t it?

Yeah. Fast forward now, we’ve got a very, very reliable platform, it works completely as expected, and generally, feedback is excellent. So now we’re at the stage where we’re starting to focus more on innovation, and adding functionality, and building some new exciting things that haven’t been done before.

Did you ever need to take on funding?

No, I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because again, my story as an entrepreneur, I’ve not got any other directors or shareholders. It’s my business, and I’ve never had any investment, and I’ve never had a job working for anyone else, because I just got started at such a young age, you know, and grew things very, very slowly, and maybe a bit of luck as well.

We were based in Manchester city centre, and I moved to Manchester just after I went to university in Huddersfield, moved here 7 years ago just after I graduated, which was around the time I started hiring people. And there wasn’t a tech scene then. Even, I think, then, having a tech business in the UK wasn’t a cool thing, whereas now, in Manchester, like I’m sure there is in Sheffield as well, there’s quite an established tech scene. I think it’s growing. It’s good now, but I think it’s going to grow significantly over the next few years.

But obviously, now the thing is you raise as much money as possible and then you have Series A, and Series B [funding]. My own approach as an entrepreneur, I’ve always been very profit-focused, and in the last year and a half, I’ve made a few angel investments, myself, into other businesses. Some of them are small companies, some of them are very small investments in a much bigger company. So that’s something that’s new for me as well. But in terms of the investment thing, we obviously didn’t have to take an investment. We were in a lucky position in that respect.

That’s great, what kind of revenue do you do on a monthly basis?

About 100K a month for radio.co at the moment. We’ve grown quite significantly, like 84%, since end of last year. So, you know, it’s growing very nicely and steadily. Obviously, we’re working hard in terms of customer acquisition. I don’t see, at the moment, it slowing down. I think, obviously there’s going to be a limit. It’s a niche business at the end of the day, but I feel like things are going well for us at the moment.

Are you the market leader, in terms of market share?

The company, for example, that bought Shoutcast from AOL. They are in the same space, probably a lot bigger than us… They’ve had millions and millions of investment ploughed into them. Whether or not they actually make any money, I don’t know. It’s interesting, because I was at SXSW conference in March, and there  was a guy who was onstage talking about— a guy called Gary V, who’s kind of… a bit of an Internet celebrity as well.

Oh. Yeah, yeah, I know him. [laughs]

I don’t really follow him. I was aware of him. I’ve watched a few of his videos. And he said about the whole startup thing, raising funding, and I can relate to this a lot, ‘A lot of people go and start businesses, and they want to raise money, and they’re dreaming that one day, Facebook or Google will buy them,’ which obviously happens to a tiny portion of people or companies. And he said, ‘Let me remind you that a business that doesn’t make profit is not a successful business.’ And I thought, yeah. I mean, you know, that’s the thing: I’m not trying to build the next Facebook or Google, you know? But, at the same time, we are profitable and growing, and for me as an entrepreneur, that’s paramount.

So what is one of the things that you found personally most challenging to adapt to?

I think I’m a good leader, but not a particularly good manager, you know? At the moment, we’ve got a small team. We’re 12 strong. I don’t think I’d be very good at managing a really big team. Like, if we had, like 50 people. I just think the day-to-day HR stuff would be too much for me to hack, you know what I mean? I think that’s probably my weakness.

Likewise, I’m not actually the most organised of people, we’ve got lots of systems in place, and the approach to development stuff has been radically improved since when I first started hiring people, when it was very much just like… I kind of made it up as I went along. It was kind of like, ‘Let’s do this feature today!’ or, ‘Let’s work on this!’ Whereas now, you know, we’re a lot stricter in terms of writing tests for code, and… actually I don’t write any code.

I haven’t written any code for probably 5 years or so, but the fact that I sort of learned the basics of development early on, I suppose, sets me up in good stead for talking about the development, understanding the technical aspects to building a web product. I think, as a founder, that’s quite important.

But yeah. I suppose those are a couple of weaknesses. I’ve gotten better in terms of how organised I am, certainly. [laughs]

Okay, good. [laughs] What are you learning at the moment?

Yeah, I mean, one of things I’ve just launched, a new business called ‘MCI Live’, and it’s kinda spun out of radio.co. It’s a radio and content network for Manchester. The opportunity came up to get a radio licence in Manchester, which was quite exciting, so we thought, ‘Let’s do something with it.’ We got this last year, kind of trialled the night air for a little while, didn’t really work, so now we’ve… This is, you know, quite big. We’re very much all in on this, so we’ve, you know, got a separate office. There’s 5…  4 new members of staff working in the office. That’s totally different because although we use radio.co to power the station, and we’re also doing podcasts and other things as well, it’s a totally different team. It’s a lot more creative, and it’s a lot more music-focused, not as technically-focused like the team here at radio.co is. So that’s quite interesting, I think. There’s this big learning curve for me, and lots of different challenges in that business.

What’s the most important trait you need for running a business?

My answer for this question is always ‘perseverance’, and I think it’s different depending on the personality type. I think, if you have a business… when I was at university, I used to, practically on a weekly basis, register domain names for this, that, and the other. ‘Oh, I could build this, and do this.’ Actually, sometimes, you just need to stick at one thing, and just see it through, because otherwise, you know, you end up digressing and going off on different tangents and actually, if you’ve got something that’s working, just work at it and make it even better. So, you know, perseverance is key.

What books & podcasts do you recommend?

Oh, good question. You know, I shouldn’t admit this: I’ve never really listened to that many podcasts, and when I do, I just sort of dip in and out of them, and a lot of them aren’t really tech-focused. Because, like, you can become so obsessed with the the tech thing, and business, and I think, maybe, I used to read a lot more books. Business books, that sort of stuff. I think I’m at the stage now where I want to go home at the end of the day and not think about business and tech.

4-Hour Workweek [by Tim Ferriss] is a really great book. I really enjoyed that. There’s a lot of dry business books as well, you know? And I think, as well… I used to read all sorts. 10 years ago, when I was at uni, I’d be reading everything from Paul McKenna, kind of, like, personal development books, through to, like… What was it? ‘The Rules of Wealth’, ‘The Rules of Management’, ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’. That kind of thing. I read a really broad spectrum of things. Now, I don’t read as much, just because, you know, information overload.

I completely believe it’s good to have education, but you could spend your time, especially people who are thinking about getting started in business, or they’ve got an idea, but haven’t actually executed it. It’s so easy to spend all your time thinking about an idea, and you spend all your money on these books, and actually not just doing anything. Sometimes you just need to get on with stuff and execute a plan, or test an idea, test something out, rather than think, ‘Well, I’m gonna learn as much as possible, and eventually I might do it’. You know, get stuck in it. I think learning from your mistakes is, for me, now more valuable than what you can get out of a book.

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